Playoff math is working against the Caps

(Nick Wass/AP Photo)

STATISTICAL ANALYSIS | The Capitals are on a winning streak — their first of the season — and are finally starting to dig themselves out of last place in the NHL. Last night’s overtime win against Florida was much needed on many levels. It was their first road win of the season, one in which they scored three goals in 5:39. Six different Capitals ended up scoring and five had a multiple-point night, including Mike Ribeiro, who has been stellar, chipping in points on nine of Washington’s 11 power-play goals this season.

“A game like this can turn the season around for a team because they were down two goals in this game,” explains ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose. “Florida had everything going their way, the Washington Capitals looked like a beaten team. Bang! They tie it up and end up winning in overtime. Those games change things.”

Yes, games like this can turn a season around. But is there enough time for the Capitals, who have nine points in 13 games with just 35 remaining, to beat the math that is working against them?

When there was a shortened season in 1995, also 48 games in length, the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference needed 47 points to qualify for the postseason. The year before (1993-94) it took 84 points; the year after (1995-96) it took 88 points, so accumulating between 53 and 56 percent of the surrounding years’ standings points got you playing for the Stanley Cup in that short season. Last year the Ottawa Senators got in with 92 points and the New York Rangers needed 93 before that, so using this method we can estimate it will take between 49 and 52 points this season. If we look at the 48-
game equivalent of points the eighth seeds needed since the lockout, it is closer to 54 points. That means Washington would need the following 82-game pace to be eighth in the Eastern Conference and have a spot in the playoffs:

 Points needed Remaining points needed Pts% needed rest of way 82-game pace equivalent 49 40 0.571 94 50 41 0.586 96 51 42 0.600 98 52 43 0.614 101 53 44 0.629 103 54 45 0.643 105

If the cutoff is at 49 points, then the team needs a .571 points percentage the rest of the way. That’s likely to be 24 wins this season. They have four, with victories coming against Buffalo (which was without Thomas Vanek, the current league leader in goals scored), Philadelphia (which is also going through a season of transition) and Florida twice (the other worst team in the East). Just one of those victories, last night’s overtime win against the Panthers, has come away from Verizon Center.

If the Capitals need 51 points, then a 98-point pace (per 82 games) from now until April will get them in. That would be better than their performance last season, when they won their first seven games and finished second in the Southeast Division.

If it takes 54 points, then the boys in red need a Presidents’ Trophy-worthy performance — similar to those in 2008-09 and 2010-11 — over the next 35 games.

So yes, I am saying there is a chance. But how likely is it?

Since the 2005-06 season, the biggest deficit overcome in the East to make the playoffs with 35 games left has been four points. Right now the Capitals are five points out of playoff contention and with no inter-divisional play, the teams ahead of them will always be getting points from somewhere. Take Tuesday night, for example: 12 Eastern Conference teams saw action and nine of them got at least one point. Seven of those clubs are teams Washington needs to leapfrog to get into the postseason.

In addition, wallowing in the basement of the Eastern Conference is difficult to overcome by itself. Over the past seven seasons, just one last-place team in the East with almost a quarter of the games in the books has had a postseason appearance: the 2007-08 Washington Capitals.

Here are the fates of last-place teams as of Nov. 30 in their respective seasons. I choose Nov. 30 to get approximately the same percentage of games played as this season.

 Season Last place team as of Nov 30 Record as of Nov 30 Place in conference at end of season 2011-12 NY Islanders 6-11-4 14 2010-11 NY Islanders 5-12-5 14 2009-10 Carolina 5-16-5 11 2008-09 Tampa Bay 6-9-7 14 2007-08 Washington 8-15-2 3 2006-07 Philadelphia 7-14-3 15 2005-06 Florida 7-14-4 11

I know, I know: hockey is played on the ice and not on a spreadsheet. But the reality is that even with the back-to-back wins, the Capitals are in last place in both the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference and in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.

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